Friday, March 22, 2013

Kaia Foods

As you may have noticed, I've been trying out a lot of snacks, and in particular, granolas, lately.  I really do like granola, but I've had a really hard time finding one to stick with.

Kaia Foods is a local health food producer from Oakland.  I was drawn to their products because they had a raw sprouted buckwheat granola, which sounded different, and I've really liked buckwheat granolas in the past.  Unfortunately, I did not like this granola.  I also tried some of their spiced nuts, but didn't like them either.

I don't think I necessarily dislike raw items, but these really did not do it for me.
Date & Spice Sprouted Buckwheat Granola. 
"An indulgent blend of fiber-laden dates and cozy spices."  Contains the namesake sprouted buckwheat and dates, along with flax seeds, sprouted sunflower seeds, sprouted pumpkin seeds, sprouted walnuts,  and dried coconut.  Agave sweetened of course.

I didn't like this.  I like buckwheat, and I like granola, but this really didn't do it for me at all.  I did like the form factor, nice big clusters, and crunchy, but it just didn't taste good.  It was fairly bitter.  The chunks of date were also very hard.  I hate raisins in granola for this reason, and they were larger, and so even worse to chew on.  Emil tried some of this, and actually thought he'd bitten into a rock.

I initially just tried it by the handful to munch on, but then also tried it in milk, to soften it a bit and perhaps disperse the flavors.  Again, I found it too bitter and just not good.

Would not get again.
Sprouted Pumpkin Seeds: Party Mix.
These pumpkin seeds are dehydrated, rather than roasted, because Kaia Foods is all about raw foods.  I wasn't sure what to expect from the "party mix" seasonings, and I'm still not really sure what the seasoning was.  It wasn't a party for me.  Everything was just biter and not very good.

Would not get again.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sibby's Cupcakery

I eat a lot of cupcakes.  I'm ridiculously spoiled by the fact that we have an incredible pastry department where I work, and they feature cupcakes once a week.  I've dubbed Tuesday "Cupcake Day" in their honor.  So, it takes a lot to impress me with a cupcake these days.

I recently tried out Sibby's, a cupcake bakery in San Mateo. They do not actually have a retail storefront, and are used only for catering and events, which is of course where I've run into them.  I didn't really like any of them.
Carrot Cinnamon.  Mini.  $2.25.
This mini was far smaller than any of their others.  I'm not really sure why they had such radically different sizes.  Unlike most cupcakes these days, it had very little icing.  I couldn't tell what flavor the icing was, either vanilla or perhaps cream cheese.  It was mostly just a little sweet, and kinda hard.

The cake was moist, but almost mushy.  It had flecks of carrot and I think zucchini in it.  Not much flavor however.

Very disappointing, definitely not worth $2.25.  This was the most expensive mini I've encountered.
Pumpkin Spice.  Mini.  $2.25.
This was a seasonal special flavor, pumpkin spice.  The cake was again fairly moist, and again, fairly flavorless.  It had some subtle spicing to it, but I didn't really taste pumpkin.  The icing layer was thicker than the carrot one, and it was clearly cream cheese this time, and a little creamy.  The icing was the best part.

Not very good overall, and again, not worth $2.25, although it was much larger than the first one.

[ No Photos ]
  • Chocolate & Cream: “Rich chocolate cupcake with vanilla cream cheese frosting.” Tasting notes: Not very good chocolate cupcake, no real chocolate flavor, not moist, just sweet generic frosting.
  • Confetti Surprise: “Moist vanilla cupcake with confetti sprinkles baked inside, topped with vanilla cream cheese frosting.” Tasting notes: Decent cupcake, sweet frosting, not bad but not anything special.  Best of all of the ones I tried.
  • Latte Love: “Vanilla cupcake with espresso-infused coffee buttercream frosting.” Tasting notes: Plain, not very good cupcake, good espresso flavor in the frosting.
  • Lemon Drop: "Light lemon cupcake with fresh lemon buttercream frosting."  Tasting notes: This was decent.  The cake was very consistent, fairly moist, but I always like them better with a crispy top.  The lemon flavor was subtle and nice.  My favorite of their cupcakes thus far.
  • Red Velvet: “Classic Red Velvet cupcake with extra-rich cream cheese frosting.”  Tasting notes: Kinda dry not very great cupcake, subtle cream cheese frosting, not very good.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana

A few years ago, one of my friends kept raving about a place for their cheesy bread.  Whenever someone suggested going out to eat, "CHEESY BREAD!" was always the answer.  I went a few times back then, but never found it all that memorable.  I vaguely remembered that they were known for homemade pastas, and their pesto in particular, but I hadn't been back in years.  I'd pretty much forgotten about the place: Farina.

Until of course, I saw them on LevelUp.  Unlike most places that seed their LevelUp accounts with $2, Farina goes above and beyond and seeds it with $20! I honestly thought it was a type-o at first.  Remembering my friend's enthusiasm for the cheesy bread, and seeing the large credit amount was enough to make me look them back up.

Yelp reviews weren't great, but a lot of reviewers were mostly complaining that it was too pricy.  I'm used to paying high prices for good food, so I wasn't really put off by that.  I was a little surprised that I couldn't really get anything on the dinner menu to fall within the $20 credit, but they also offer a Sunday brunch, and I love brunch!

So, I went.

The restaurant offers a plethora of seating options.  There are a few tables outside on the sunny Mission sidewalk.  A huge communal table and regular tables fill in the main area.  There is classic bar seating, and also a chef's counter area in front of where the fresh pasta is made.  And then upstairs they have outdoor rooftop seating.  The place is much bigger than it looks from the outside!  On my first visit, I was alone, so I just sat at the bar.  It was comfortable and had purse hooks.  On my second visit, I was seated in the main dining room.

Service was fine on both visits, the staff friendly enough.  They threw in a few words of Italian from time to time.  I talked to someone, I think the manager, about their use of LevelUp, asking if many people used it.  He said only about two per month.  I was a little surprised, how is everyone not rushing there to get $20 worth of free food?  He said they mostly see it as a promotional stunt, just getting their name out there.  Makes sense to me, as it got me there!

The restaurant prides themselves in doing many things in house - filtered water, still or sparkling, is offered when you sit down.  I know it sounds silly to rave about, but I love their sparkling water.  The level of carbonation is just perfect, not too much, and not too little.  I'd buy it if I could!  The table bread is freshly made when you arrive, and always offers several choices.  And the pasta you can watch being made before your eyes.  The menu states that you pay for all this with an additional service fee, which of course the Yelpers are very upset by.

The food was all ... fine.  Nothing was bad, but nothing was particularly memorable.  Given the dinner prices, I can't really imagine going back, but brunch prices weren't too high, and given $20 credit, were downright fantastic!
Bread basket: grissini, focaccia.
Within moments of my ordering, a lovely bread basket was set down in front of me.  I wasn't that hungry, and already thought I wouldn't be able to finish my pasta dish alone, so I figured I'd just try a bite of each of the bread options in order to review them for you, but mostly, I'd ignore the basket.  I'm not that much of a bread girl anyway.

First, I tried the grissini.  Hard style breadsticks, I believe with fennel seed in them.  They were crispy, and one bite was all I really needed.  If I'd been hungrier, maybe I'd want more, but they weren't anything special.

All was going according to plan.  And then, I tried the other bread.

Little chunks of focaccia.  I was a little weirded out by the form factor, as they were all different sizes, and seemed to have been ripped up by hand, almost as if it was someone else's leftovers.  But one bite and I didn't care.  It was warm.  It was doughy.  It was insanely flavorful, covered in olive oil and sea salt.  The perfect salt level.  Way more oil than I'd probably ever put on something, but it was so delicious.  I couldn't get enough of this!  At once, I was overjoyed that they'd given me, a solo diner, the same size bread basket as they were giving all other parties in the restaurant.  So much focaccia for me!

The bread was by far the highlight of the meal for me.  It was really, really quite good.  I asked about it, and they told me it was just focaccia with olive oil and salt, and that people often ask for butter or oil to go along with it, and they don't know why, as it is seasoned perfectly and served alone on purpose.

It made me wonder about the cheesy bread again, if the plain bread was this delicious.  Perhaps next time I'll just go get an order of cheesy bread :)
Bread Basket: Olive bread, focaccia.
On my second visit, I was already looking forward to my bread basket.  It arrived as expected, although not quite as fast as on my first visit.  There was steam coming out of the bread.  I think it was taken directly out of the oven.  Ojan was impressed with the freshness and quality of the bread!

Like last time, there was some focaccia.  It didn't quite live up to my memory, but it was warm and nicely salted.

The other selection was an olive bread.  It looked pretty boring, although clearly freshly baked.  I again assumed I'd skip this bread, but got strangely addicted to it.  The crust on it was perfect, and you really just can't beat fresh bread like this.  There were a few small pieces of olive in it.

Another above average bread basket!
Mandilli di seta al pesto Genovese: Handmade handkerchief pasta with Genovese basil pesto. $16. 
Since they are known for their handmade pastas, I asked for a recommendation amongst the pastas, and the bartender said it was no contest, this was the one to get.  It is their signature dish, and apparently they've won awards for it.

It arrived insanely quickly.  I'd only gotten through one chunk of the amazing focaccia when it arrived.  Literally, about 3 minutes after I placed my order.

The pesto was good, but I think the aroma of it was better than the taste.  It smelt amazing when it was set down in front of me!  I took a moment to just take it in.  It was flavorful, but honestly, I didn't find it to be that remarkable.  There was a lot of olive oil in the sauce.

The handkerchief pasta was two very large, thin sheets of pasta.  It tasted fresh enough I guess, but wasn't really all that flavorful or special.  And given that the entire plate was made up of two sheets of it, it was a little hard to eat, you had to cut it up strangely.  It was also a little soggy.  I wouldn't want pasta in this form factor to be al dente obviously, but this was definitely a little overcooked.

It was sprinkled with some cheese, I think parmesan.  The cheese did go really well with the pesto.

This wasn't bad, but it really wasn't that great.  I don't understand the hype, nor the price tag.  I thought the pesto was better on the focaccia than on the pasta, as I really just didn't care for the doneness level on the pasta, and the bread soaked up the oil in the pesto nicely.

The dish was $16, and after tax and tip, I expected it to just exceed my $20 credit, which was fine.  What I didn't count on was the other 4% cover charge they added!  "The cover charge includes our premium amenities: fresh artisan bread, focaccia, grissini and house filtered waters."  Hmph.  I guess I'm starting to see why the Yelpers are so grumpy.  At dinner time, this dish is $26.  The pasta I've had pretty much everywhere else has been better, and far cheaper, like Perbacco, Seven Hills, Cotogna.  $16 even seemed pricy for this pretty small portion.

I wouldn't get again.
Pansotti di Recco con pesto di noci: Handmade Genovese pansotti filled with ricotta cheese, spinach and borage served in a cream walnut pesto sauce.  $16. (Half-portion)
On my second visit, I tried another of their pastas.

The pasta itself was fairly unremarkable, clearly freshly made to order, with a decent level of doneness, but not much flavor.  It basically served as just a wrapper around the filling, which is where all the flavor was.  It was full of really fresh greens, nicely seasoned.  I didn't really taste the ricotta, which was fine with me.  They reminded me a little of the snow pea dumplings at Yank Sing, always my favorite piece of dim sum when I visit.

The sauce was creamy, had a slight nutty flavor, but wasn't all that remarkable.  I definitely preferred the pesto on my first visit, although I did enjoy having the sauce to lap up with my bread.

I split with Ojan, and the kitchen was kind enough to plate it separately for us, two plates of three large pansotti each.  The $16 price tag seemed reasonable for a full order of 6 of these.  Ojan really liked this dish, but I wouldn't order again.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pancho Villa

If you have been following my blog, you know that LevelUp has led me to discover a slew of new places.  It has also led me to finally go to places that I've known about for years, yet never ventured into.  Pancho Villa is one such place.  Everyone in SF knows about it, right?  Located right at 16th & Mission, with a security guard in front at all times.  A SF classic.  But somehow, I'd never been, even though I've been eating a fair amount of Mexican food lately.

I finally ventured inside when I was nearby for their Happy Hour (M-F, 3-5pm).  I'm glad I finally tried it out, and I'd stop in again if I was the Mission, but I won't be going out of my way to return.
Complimentary Chips.
The ordering process is in three steps.  After placing your food order, the second step is to order drinks.  After that, you are handed a basket of chips.  And then you finally make it to the cashier.  It sounds a bit inefficient, but they have it all pretty streamlined.

The chips are about as generic as they get.  They are not served warm.  They aren't really salted.  At least they weren't too greasy, and I do give them bonus points for including chips, even at Happy Hour,  and even if you are just getting a single taco.
Salsa from the salsa bar.
Pancho Villa has a very large salsa bar.  I think I counted 8-10 different salsas.  None were labelled, and since I'm allergic to avocado, I avoided any that were questionably green, in fear that they might have avocado in them.  And since they weren't labelled, guessing what to expect from each one was pretty fun.  I did not like the chips, but I liked the guessing game so much, and the chips gave me something to try them on.

Clockwise, from top left:
  • This one had some visible pepper flakes, so I thought it would be fairly flavorful.  It did have a tiny bit of heat, but overall, the flavor was uninteresting, and it was very watery.  My 4th pick.
  • This one had some chunks of tomato and onion in it, although very small.  It was medium spiciness.  My 5th pick.
  • This one LOOKED very hot.  It had tons of visible pepper flakes floating in it.  It really wasn't that spicy, but had the most interesting flavor of the bunch, a bit smokey.  My favorite.
  • This one was slightly green, and I figured was going to be a mild verde sauce.  So wrong I was.  This was crazy hot! My least favorite.
  • This was creamy, with a mild tomato sauce. I expected to like it, and did.  My second favorite.
  • This was very watery, very mild, basically just a tomato sauce.  But the tomato flavor was good.  3rd pick.
I didn't really love any of the salsas, which was sad, because they had so many.  The salsa bar also included chopped onions, cilantro, lime wedges, radishes, etc.
Prawn Taco.  $2 Happy Hour, $3.50 regular.
At Happy Hour, the regular tacos are all $1.50 (they were $1 last time I was there, prices went up!)  They have a slew of choices (12!), but, I don't really like chicken, pork, etc, so I decided to go for a seafood taco, even though they cost $2 pre-tax, thus putting me a whopping $0.18 over my initial LevelUp credit.  I'm glad I splurged, as this was clearly more my style.

Like many other tacos I've had, they came double wrapped.  The tortillas were warm, soft, but a bit soggy.  I wasn't a fan.

The taco was filled with a bunch of shredded iceberg lettuce.  Not much to say about that.  And my choice of salsa - mild, medium, or hot.  I went for medium, but honestly didn't taste any spice whatsoever.  The salsa seemed to just be chunks of onions and very under-ripe tomatoes.  I know it isn't tomato season, but they weren't good at all.  These components were all incredibly underwhelming, and they were plentiful.  It was impossible to take a bite of the taco without stuff spilling out all over the place.

Also included in the taco was some form of creamy sauce.  I have no idea what it was, as it wasn't listed on the menu at all.  It seemed almost vinegary, a bit strange for a creamy sauce.

And finally, the prawns.  There were 3 good size prawns, butterflied, and grilled.  They were a bit rubbery, but I think that is pretty expected for grilled prawns.  I liked the grilled flavor, and the fact that they were grilled to order (unlike their standard tacos, where the fillings are already prepared and sitting in vats).

My taco also included a bonus: an eyelash!  Slightly gross, but I understand how that happens.

Overall, it was ok, but I wouldn't get again.

Pancho Villa's tacos are significantly smaller than many others I've encountered.  This explains why everyone in front of me was ordering multiples.  The Happy Hour price is obviously good, but compared to the $2 Taco Tuesday ones available at Nick's Crispy Tacos, Pancho Villa's are much, much smaller.  However, their ingredients seemed higher quality than Nick's, and of course they include chips too.  At the regular price of $3.50 ($3 for non-seafood) however, they are close in price to TropisueƱo's fish tacos (and more than their standard tacos), where they also include chips (hot, fresh, and about 3x as many), an INCREDIBLE salsa bar, and the tacos are much bigger, and way higher quality.  So Pancho Villa is an ok value, but I'd pick TropisueƱo  any day.